Skip to Main Content

Strategic Business Insights (SBI) logo

Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials June 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

Smart Steel

Why is this topic significant?

Companies in the steel industry illustrate that opportunities exist for legacy materials manufacturers to retrofit their production systems with network capabilities and benefit from data-driven materials processing. The use of Industry 4.0 technologies could greatly enhance the efficiency and profitability of materials production.

Description

Big River Steel (BRS; Osceola, Arkansas) has partnered with artificial-intelligence (AI) developer Noodle Analytics (Noodle.ai; San Francisco, California) to develop algorithms that optimize steel production. Using data from thousands of sensors installed at BRS's scrap-steel mill in Arkansas, Noodle.ai has developed AI and machine-learning technologies that perform predictive equipment maintenance, make forecasts about steel demand, and optimize steel-production scheduling and inventory management. BRS claims that the technology increases steel-production efficiency and reduces material wastage and energy costs.

Predictive analytics and computational optimization are affecting steel manufacturing in a variety of ways. For example, Fero Labs (New York, New York) has developed a machine-learning algorithm that it claims can predict mill scaling (unwanted surface oxidation of hot-rolled steel) with high accuracy and reduce it by as much as 15%. In May 2018, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing unveiled their algorithmic software, AutoBarSizer, which optimizes cutting plans for producing customized steel profiles and other metal bars, reducing material waste. And Posco (Pohang, South Korea) has developed a big-data-and-AI platform that detects and reduces defects and quality deviations in steel products.

Implications

Access to low-cost sensors and high-performance cloud computing is enabling a variety of manufacturers (and businesses) to collect vast amounts of data at every stage of production. Advances in predictive analytics and computational optimization techniques are transforming these data into valuable insights and recommendations that affect manufacturers' bottom line. Previous Viewpoints discuss how computational tools are accelerating materials discovery and properties optimization, but opportunities also exist for downstream materials processors and manufacturers to leverage these tools (see the February 2018 Viewpoints). Materials manufacturers can modernize their facilities (many of which may have been built many years ago) by making them more efficient, automated, and potentially lower in cost to operate.

Impacts/Disruptions

Data-analytics tools and software have had gradual diffusion in the steel industry for many years, but the technology is now beginning to make an impact. In recent years, steel manufacturers have faced disruption from competing materials, trade disagreements, and overcapacity, which has driven declining growth and industry consolidation. Industry 4.0 technologies may help steel manufacturers, and potentially other metallic- and ceramic-material manufacturers, stay competitive.

Demand for advanced high-strength steels, particularly from automotive manufacturers, for applications such as lightweighting is increasing. However, the high prices of advanced steels do not necessarily compensate for the fact that they require less material for a given application than conventional steels. Increasing production efficiency is therefore strategically important to manufacturers of advanced steels, and, furthermore, could represent a route for the production of greener materials.

However, accessing and training appropriate human resources can be a major challenge for materials manufacturers seeking to leverage Industry 4.0 technologies—creating opportunities for service providers. To avoid future disruption, manufacturers need to ensure security and accuracy of their data-collection systems.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Construction, automotive, transport, consumer products, manufacturing, chemicals processing, oil and gas, big data, Internet of Things, information and communications

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

3D Printing Functionally Graded Materials

Why is this topic significant?

Functionally graded materials have unique properties that make them attractive for use in a variety of applications. However, fabrication remains a barrier to FGM commercialization. Advances in 3D-printing technology could pave the way for low-cost on-demand FGMs, potentially opening new applications of the technology.

Description

Functionally graded materials (FGMs) are composites in which the interface between different compositions or microstructures is spatially graded. Most conventional fabrication methods are capable of creating FGMs graded in only one dimension, but researchers at Aerosint (Liège, Belgium) claim that they have developed multimaterial powder-bed 3D-printing technology capable of producing FGMs graded in three dimensions. Aerosint's technology uses rotating drums incorporating different compositions of ceramic, metal, or polymer powders that selectively deposit individual powder particles line by line, eventually assembling a 3D structure. The technology essentially combines Aerosint's selective-powder-dispensing technology with selective-laser-sintering (SLS) technology, whereby each powder layer is successively sintered. Aerosint claims that its new technology is scalable, produces very little material waste, and has printing speeds comparable to those of SLS.

Implications

Some FGMs have advanced properties—such as high resistance to failure resulting from exposure to thermal, chemical, or mechanical stresses—that make them attractive for applications that see use in extreme environments. Such items include thermal coatings, medical implants, and aerospace components. However, conventional FGM-fabrication techniques—such as chemical- and physical-vapor deposition, sputtering, and powder metallurgy—have limited capability for producing FGMs and can be complex and high in cost.

Because it offers high spatial control and geometrical flexibility, 3D printing is emerging as a promising technique for FGM fabrication. Aerosint's technology is attractive because, in principle, with adjustments to the powder composition and particle size in each drum, it's possible to make composites comprising various materials and features. However, the technology's capability is limited because cosintering materials with very different sintering temperatures is often impossible.

Impacts/Disruptions

At present, 3D printing FGMs and multimaterials is at the demonstration and prototyping stage, and Aerosint's 3D-printing technology is likely several years away from commercialization. For the technology to make a commercial impact, it will need to have performance advantages—such as fast printing speed and material flexibility—and lower cost than other emerging 3D-printing technologies for FGM and multimaterial fabrication such as direct-metal deposition (see also the May 2017 Viewpoints).

Nevertheless, Aerosint's technology could enable the commercialization of advanced ceramic and metallic FGMs as well as other composites, potentially opening a variety of interesting new applications for these materials. For example, using multimaterial 3D-printing technology, researchers could tune the properties of composite materials by specifically defining the pattern of the reinforcing phase within the material's host matrix. Because many natural materials are compositionally graded, the technology could accelerate efforts in biomimetic engineering (see the March 2018 Viewpoints and the June 2017 Viewpoints). Furthermore, because most finished products comprise more than one material, multimaterial 3D-printing technology, if scalable, could accelerate and simplify mass-production processes that normally involve the assembly of individual components.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

3D printing, manufacturing, aerospace, defense, energy, optoelectronics, medicine and health care, engineering, transport

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: